June 16, 2010

The stories behind the music portraiture of Todd Roeth

avett brothers todd roeth

This weekend a photo exhibit opened up in Southern California showcasing the music portraiture of Todd Roeth, a wonderfully talented Denver artist (and friend) who I’ve worked with on many occasions for interviews appearing both on Fuel/Friends and on Gigbot. The Setlist: Music Portraiture by Todd Roeth exhibit is running through August 5th at the Brooks Institute of Photography.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way an insightful photographer can capture ephemeral moments in a concrete way. Todd’s exhibit pairs audio clips + music alongside his massive-scale portraits, so you can hear the artists’ recollections of the photo shoots, or Todd discussing artistic direction used for that shoot, or just thoughts of folks like me who were involved with them. For this exhibit intro, I said:

I think that music photography is a wonderful challenge for someone that really loves music. To me, music a lot of the time is interesting because of the person behind it — what they’re trying to say, who they’re trying to reveal of themselves, or who they want to be. Good music photography elucidates a certain aspect of a person, or challenges the viewer in a certain way by pressing against maybe what they think is true of that person, versus what the lens can actually capture, and Todd has a very intuitive sense of knowing what will work…

LISTEN: What I remember of the Langhorne Slim interview and photo shoot @ The Boulderado Hotel

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langhorne slim todd roeth

Even without going to the exhibit, you can see and hear the rest of the features virtually — from portraits of folks like The Avett Brothers, Jesse from These United States, Joe Pug (from this interview), Patience from The Grates, Handsome Furs (from this interview), Thao Nguyen (from this interview), Catherine from Horse Feathers, Gregory Alan Isakov, Blitzen Trapper, The Knew, and Nathaniel Rateliff.

I was at many of these shoots, and I love hearing the slightly-twangy reminiscences of a good, earnest friend who normally doesn’t talk much about all these things going on in his head during the actual shoot. Now I can see some of the methods behind his wonderful madness.

As for me, I’m off to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival early tomorrow morning. In addition to seeing folks like Dave Rawlings Machine, Alison Krauss, Ben Sollee, Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, and Court Yard Hounds over this summer solstice weekend, I will be interviewing Josh Ritter over beers around this time tomorrow. I am beyond excited to speak to an artist who I think is one of the best songwriters of this generation. Wish me luck; I might come back from the Festivarian campsite as a hippie. We’ll see.

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April 22, 2010

Fuel/Friends Listening Party: new Josh Ritter (4/27, Denver)


Fuel/Friends is excited to be hosting an advance listening party of the new Josh Ritter album next Tuesday for happy hour at the Meadowlark in Denver!

So Runs The World Away won’t be out until May 4th, but I’m teaming up with the fine gentlemen at Gigbot host this opportunity for you to listen early, and enjoy some drink specials ‘n stuff while you’re at it. Come and hotly debate with me if Ritter is one of the most important songwriters of our generation, as I once postulated. I do love him so.

The Curse (live on Daytrotter) – Josh Ritter
[from their session released two weeks ago. I love how Ritter keeps tying together the idea of love with the vast unpredictability of the sea.]

Listen to another one of the new songs here, and the earlier version here.

Josh Ritter Listening Party
josh_ritter_so_runs_the_world_awaySo Runs The World Away
(out May 4 on their own label, Pytheas Records)
6-8pm on Tuesday, April 27th
The Meadowlark – 2701 Larimer St, Denver
$1 PBR $2 Wells $2 Domestics

Other nationwide Josh Ritter listening parties can be viewed here.

Also, there’s an open stage that night at The Meadowlark starting at 8:30 with Tyler Despres and Maria Kohler, if you feel like hanging around for even more good music. We won’t kick you out.

[photo credit Gigbot’s own Todd Roeth]

March 2, 2010

Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug knocked my boots off last weekend

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Today as I drove from Ohio to Indiana and pondered what a Hoosier actually was, I listened to two artists who seemed to embody those snowy midwestern hills and endless highway: Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug. I paired their CDs together as homage to the fantastic concerts I saw last weekend in Denver: one at the Bluebird with the both of them, and then a house concert on Sunday night with just Joe Pug in a breathtakingly intimate living room setting in Boulder.

Relentlessly polite and wholeheartedly earnest, Justin Townes Earle seemed to have landed from another era completely, but his music rang true and struck directly. If I were casting a movie set in 1940s Atlanta, and I was looking for a counterweight to the golden guy that the girl is going to marry, a man who shows up perhaps selling hairbrushes or snake oil with a half smile and the promise of adventure – I’d cast JTE in a heartbeat. His lanky, super-slim frame draped with a classy suit just a fraction too short as he threw himself wholeheartedly into the performance of his songs. The cover art of his 2009 record Midnight At The Movies shows Justin sitting next to a gorgeous starlet in a movie theater, drenched in green light and a flickering glow, and in so many ways that is how his music feels.

Justin fully seems to somehow straddle the world of WWII America and the bluegrass hills and Appalachians, as well as the modern alt-country rock scene – even some intangible nod to the punk aesthetic. I wouldn’t mess with him, but I’d believe him and let him buy me a drink so he could tell me a story.

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Pug-Earle 110

His music surely feels old-timey, all waltzing rhythms and “yes’m” tips of the lyrical hat, but seeing him live cemented for me that his earnestness makes all the difference in making this still feel like a vital, youthful genre. There is no shtick that I could detect. This is the style of music he makes, and he means it no less than Nirvana or Thao Nguyen or any other number of young folks in passionate bands.

Justin dedicated a bittersweet end-of-the-night rendition of “Midnight At The Movies” to Chris Feinstein (aka Space Wolf), bassist for Ryan Adam’s Cardinals who died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in December. They were apparently NYC neighbors. The slow-wheeling song was one of the sweetest things I’ve heard out in the night air in many months – it was a 3am slow dance, the bartender wiping the tables, the snow falling somewhere very far away from these warm walls. But then lest you forget his range of influences, he also covered both Buck Owens, the Carter Family, and The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (with stand-up bass and fiddle), alongside his own well-crafted tunes.

There’s a part in movie Crazy Heart that I’m probably going to misquote, but when Jeff Bridges is picking at his guitar, writing a song, and he asks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character if she knows the song, and she’s sure she already does. “The best songs are always the ones you think you’ve heard before,” he tells her – and that’s precisely how I felt the first time I heard this song:

Midnight At The Movies – Justin Townes Earle

Justin also recently recorded a Dolly Parton cover with Brooklyn artist Dawn Landes:

Do I Ever Cross Your Mind – Justin Townes Earle & Dawn Landes

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While on-stage, Justin also referred to opener “Joe Fucking Pug” as having put out one of the best albums of the year (an assessment I can get behind), and even though I only caught half his set due to a persistent snowfall, Joe completely blew me away. Again. As always.

Pug is a songwriter of uncommon weight and heft, and rare purity and conviction. If you’ve gotten jaded as to the effect that a simple well-written song can have when howled and emoted from the main stage, under the dust particles swirling in the stage lights, just go see Joe Pug (or Josh Ritter, for that matter) and have those convictions washed off and set aright. His set was an unrelenting cavalcade of identification with so many of the sentiments he elucidates, using only the right number of words and devastating acumen.


Then, two nights later I got to see Joe Pug again, packed shoulder to shoulder with 45 other people, on the couch and in the kitchen and kneeling on the floor in the living room of a home modestly-sized for half that many friends at best. I feverishly noted the setlist, since I had the overwhelming feeling that I was witnessing the best show I might see this year. Maybe ever. Hard to say.

Nation Of Heat
I Do My Father’s Drugs
Unsophisticated Heart
Hymn #35
Nobody’s Man
The Door Is Always Open
Speak Plainly Diana
Called By Many Names
(unreleased song)
These Days
Sharpest Crown
Hymn #101

I’ve never been to a house concert before Backforty Presents made this one possible. I was startled by the intimacy, as I think many of us were. I am used to (and prefer) my shows small and earnest, but often with the artificial barrier between performer and audience hedged cleanly by the drop-off of the stage to the sticky floors below. As eager as I was, it felt almost too intimate at times, especially given the songs he performs – sharper at excising things from my heart than any scalpel. It would be akin to kissing a stranger at a loud, smoky nightclub or kissing them on a quiet Sunday morning at the sun-drenched kitchen table. In such close quarters, there is nowhere to hide.

Joe is amiable and has grown, even in the last year, to become a more confident performer (no doubt a byproduct of the sheer insane number of shows he’s played). But again, the intimacy of this show and the immense wall of camaraderie reverberating back to him seemed to also take him a bit by surprise. As the final note from opening song “A Nation Of Heat” died out into the suburban condo living room, the thunderous applause that rained down like a tidal wave might have even made his eyes shine with a bit of extra glossiness as he broke into a wide smile, if my perceptions were correct. And I felt the same way.

“Not So Sure” is a gem of a song from the new album, chronicling a gnawing disillusion, with ennui mushrooming in its lyrics. When Joe stood four feet from me, stared somewhere intensely at the back wall, into space, while he plucked the opening notes and launched into lines like: “I bummed expensive cigarettes, I wrote John Steinbeck’s books / I undressed someone’s daughter, and complained about her looks” – I was done for. Then it happened again and again with his songs piercing us all, peaking at the final “Hymn #101” in front of my nose. That is such an incredible song, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it in an environment like that.

Not So Sure – Joe Pug (from his new album Messenger)

Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (from his Nation of Heat EP)

After seeing Joe Pug (twice) and Justin Townes Earle in the same weekend, I woke up Monday morning feeling a radiant, warm glow tingling around me like an aura. Did that really happen? Do shows like that still occur, despite the jadedness of life?

It did, and they do.

[See all of my photos from the show on the Fuel/Friends Facebook fan page; house concert photo credit Todd Roeth]

January 14, 2010

A Danger(ous) radio appearance


Hot on the heels of my NPR chat, I recently stopped by Danger Radio studios in a top-secret location in Denver to record a show with Tyler “Danger” Jacobson and Jake Ryan. In between playing songs we’re digging, listen to me get feisty and flushed about defending bands I love from marauding curmudgeons with strong opinions.

danger radioDanger Radio Episode 47 with Heather Browne (playlist)

[Just kidding, we love each other. But we did disagree, which is kind of fun. Top photo by Todd Roeth, from this excellent piece.]

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October 13, 2009

Nobody but you :: Interview with Langhorne Slim


The music made by Langhorne Slim is an anachronistic blend of rollicking, boot-stomping Americana, howling rock, and plaintive love songs that defy a single era. Hailing from the small town in Pennsylvania that he borrowed as his stage name from, Langhorne is indeed an artist who defines himself and his genre simply as a man who writes love songs. From soul-stirring gospel to old brokedown blues, his music is influenced by many different styles as there are kinds of love, and “it just makes sense.” He has released a superb album this year with his Be Set Free. I’ve been listening to it nonstop.

Over a bottle of wine in room #312 of the rad historic Boulderado Hotel, we spoke of everything from his musical roots listening to Hole when he was 14, to his kinship with the older generation and his comfort in growing older, and the ways he challenges himself in music to keep things exciting. In the same way that someone like M Ward is both delightfully unpredictable and richly soaked in the blues, Langhorne moves fluidly between a range of influences.

There’s a loosely-tied thread of jangly marvelousness cascading through so many of these songs, like it’s just barely being held together around the edges, while pulsing wild and free in the hot-blooded center. He can also turn a lyric in a way that pierces me, and is just as sharp and clever in person as he is on his records.

Boots Boy – Langhorne Slim

September 9, 2009

FUEL/FRIENDS: You work really hard with your music, and you’ve been doing it for a long time – fifteen years?

Langhorne Slim: Well, I started writing music when I was pretty small, but I’ve been doing it professionally for six years or so. I’ve got high hopes with this new album, I want to make records that I hope will be meaningful to people for a long time.

F/F: Do you feel that you’ve approached all three of your records more or less in the same way, or are you trying completely new things here that you’ve never done in the past?

LS: Well, I tried to sing better, for one (laughs), because I do got it in me. No, I think the songs on this record represent growth. I’m proud of the other records that we did too but this one is a little bit closer to where I’d like to go. Maybe if you start thinking you’re getting it all right, that can be dangerous, but I am excited about the different chances we took, and maybe I felt more comfortable within myself to take those chances.

F/F: What makes this current one your best one, and how is it different from your last ones?

LS: You get a bit more used to being in the studio, it’s a lot different than performing in front of a live audience. For us a lot of times, people will comment on the different energy at our live show and on our records. I understand where that comes from but I also…resent it? Slightly. Because I think that it’s two different forms of creativity, or two forms of oneself. In front of 100 people or 5 people or a thousand people, you know, and experimenting with these songs that you’ve been playing, and trying to explore those in a studio atmosphere, they are two very different animals. I think this time with the people we had on board, it just came out right for what it was. And I am pleased with that.

To get up in front of an audience – you don’t have that energy in a recording studio. I think that you just challenge yourself in different ways when you’re in the studio. You try to bring different things out that you wouldn’t necessarily do in a live setting. You can’t have a horn section on the road, I can’t have backup singers, but you can do that in the studio. But it’s a fine line – you don’t want stuff to sound too crystal clear in a way that makes you sound not like you. To try to keep shit raw and real, while also treading that fine line, that very fun line to explore. One needs to keep challenging themselves in their music to keep it exciting.

F/F: One of your most striking lyrics on the new album is when you recount how your grandfather told you, “All pain hurts the same.” How do you get at that with your music?

LS: Well, I’m very close with my grandparents, I have a very close family and have been lucky to have them throughout my life. I relate a lot to my grandpop Sid, and we deal with a lot of the same….we’re wired the same way. For me, I’m very happy to get older because I feel like I’m more myself – I feel better as I get older. Anyway, one time I was talking to Sidney about feeling down and not even knowing why, and I said to him, you know people are going through some really bad shit, and maybe it isn’t that tough, but why do I feel so down? And he said that. All pain hurts the same. It always stuck with me, and made it into one of my songs.

F/F: Have your grandparents informed your music in other ways? Because I feel that there’s a weight of time in your music that is not often found in young people’s writing.

LS: Probably yes, but we’re all raised in the way that we’re raised. That line rang true for me so I put it in the song because I always remembered it. I think it’s just moreso their support and wisdom and love for music that they raised us in. My parents split when I was two and my grandparents decided that they were going to step up, on both sides of the family. There was just a lot of support and they loved music. With me it was never like ‘you should get another job or, you should try something else,’ it was not like that. And I am very appreciative of that support.

F/F: A lot of your songs are very personal. Are you comfortable in letting people interpret them in the way they want, just letting it go? Or do you want them to be understood in the way that you wrote them?

LS: Not at all — in fact, I would much prefer that if anybody connects to it, they do it in their own way, because it’s not about what my connection to it is, necessarily, once it goes out there. That’s what music has always been to me, I mean – shit moves me, in my own way. Well, here’s an example – Britney Spears has a song “Womanizer,” and okay, I’m not a womanizer, but I like that song (laughs). Whatever sort of hits you, that’s what hits you. I’m beyond alright with releasing my songs out there, that’s naturally what just happens. You sit with these things and then you put em on a record and then you gotta move on to the next thing and work towards that. It’s a map of what has been done. What’s more heavy than having somebody relate to something and make it their own? For me that’s a big part of what this is all about.

F/F: It’s an interesting dichotomy to put so much of yourself into something and then set it out there and in a way it becomes not yours any more, even though you’re the one performing it.

LS: Yeah….Sometimes you’re telling everyone out there a story about something that happened, and this is how it happened, but other times it may be about a feeling or an emotion, and a melody that you think is cool. Or a story that’s fiction but not totally fiction – you’re putting, maybe, four different relationships that you might have had into a simple song. So it’s not always as personal or simple as my story, going out there.

langhorne slim hallway snap todd roeth

F/F: There was a quote I read once where you said, “I only write love songs.”

LS: People say, “what kind of music do you write?” and you’re supposed to have a genre for what you do, and I’m not trying to sound too cool for school, but I don’t feel that way toward music. I feel that the category stuff is more geared towards what section do we put this in at the record store. But yeah, love songs – if there was a section for that in the record stores maybe that’s where my shit would be. It’s not just about romantic love, there’s happy love songs, and sad love songs. We can do something like we played tonight for the radio, and I think it went over well, but in the past years playing with all sorts of headliners like metal bands or noise bands or hip-hop acts, you know, that all made sense because we all respected what each other were doing. That’s something I miss a little bit, even though I can still bring people out on the road with me, but – if tonight weren’t a radio show, people could have yelled at us, or spent the whole night back at the bar. But how cool would it be if you could have like a traveling roadshow of different stuff that just made sense because it was all good? And people would react to it? I think I’ve been lucky to get to play with a lot of eclectic bands (Violent Femmes, Avett Brothers, Lucero, Murder by Death) but I would like to also do shows with people who wouldn’t make any sense. That’s why a lot of the festivals are cool – Snoop Dogg is over there and we’re over here, and if it works right, people are music fans and they are open to hearing different shit.

F/F: You just celebrated your 29th birthday the day after my 30th, so I wonder, do you see 30 as a milestone at all, and are there things you’d like to accomplish before then? Or are you pretty content with what you’re doing in this last year of your twenties?

LS: Well, yeah – I’d love to be able to get a house – it’s amazing to be able to tour as much as we do, but I look forward to the time where I can have a place of my own that I could come home to. It would be amazing to have my own little spot someplace. Also, just to get better at what we’re doing …. and to keep on going.

todd roeth langhorne slim gods light

[Interview originally published at gigbot.com [R.I.P.], and photos of course by the formidable Todd Roeth]

August 25, 2009

Standing at the center of the occupation :: Interview with The Handsome Furs

handsome furs tandem bicycle larimer - todd roeth

We were standing in the center of the occupation
Caught between the ground and the gray gray sky…

Talking Hotel Arbat Blues – Handsome Furs

…and with those seven huge and addictive beats, so begins my favorite track on the newest album from the Handsome Furs — one of my favorite albums of the year. Face Control is unrelenting in its danceability and brilliant in its rock and roll hope, replete with sloppy ragged guitar riffs and visceral howls, all bound up with sharp electronic beats that never quit.

In June, this married pair of (short story author) Alexei Perry and (Wolf Parade’s) Dan Boeckner came to Denver’s Larimer Lounge and nearly caused the place to burst. We all danced and yelled along, while the band did calisthenics up the walls and the stage hummed with a palpable sexual energy between the two.

I sat down with them before their set, after photographer extraordinaire Todd Roeth took advantage of some crazy post-tornado light, and we discussed the Cold War influences on the new Handsome Furs album, rallying against despair through music, and butterflies and underwater candy unicorns in songwriting. Seriously.

This was one of my favorite conversations about music in a long time.

handsome furs larimer lounge - todd roeth

HANDSOME FURS INTERVIEW: Dan Boeckner & Alexei Perry
JUNE 2009

F/F: I’m interested in the emotional barometer of (your latest album) Face Control. It seems like it’s applying the metaphor of the Cold War to interpersonal relationships. I’m wondering if that is an accurate read on the record?

Dan: That’s a totally accurate representation – I think like Cold War and post-Cold War, and the idea of places like Serbia or Latvia appropriating this mantle of freedom that maybe they weren’t ready for. Or not ready for, but maybe just like jumping in with both feet into something and just accelerating the culture to the point where it’s almost a parody of Western capitalism, or hyper-capitalism.

I guess you could apply that to an interpersonal metaphor as well, like maybe falling in love for the first time or trying a new personality. You know? Changing yourself. Most of the record was a document of what we were doing while we were touring in Eastern Europe.

Alexei: …and what we were witnessing there.

F/F: To me, if your music could sit with certain artistic movements, I hear a sort of Bauhaus minimalism, blended with this streak of wild romanticism.

Alexei: Yeah, I think I frequently feel dissatisfied with how clinical life seems sometimes and what you have to do within it to feel alive.

Dan: And what we saw in Eastern Europe, too, I mean like the juxtaposition of the blocky sort of soul-crushing, utilitarian, socialist architecture.

Alexei: It’s totally dehumanizing. I mean you’re always the smallest thing. When we were in Warsaw, one of my favorite things that we did was we saw the building that’s nicknamed the Stalin’s middle finger. It’s huge. It was his gift to Warsaw and it’s the tallest thing in the skyline. And you stand in front of it you feel tiny. And yet now things are so changed and all these artists that work around that building want to do all these different things in that area and do different things with that building. Like there’s been these projects about wrapping the whole thing in like brown paper, like weird things. People have all these great ideas that spring through.

Dan: I was thinking about the electromagnetic factory in Bucharest that we went to. That juxtaposition of the music, like what we were trying to get on the record was, and this is a good example, is there was a factory that made magnets for motors, like electromagnetic parts. It’s now completely overrun by dogs. It’s totally decommissioned. And these kids were playing the craziest rock music I’ve heard in a long time in the basement cause they took the basement over, which still has the workers’ showers. So you’ve got that organic, uncontainable art in this awful place.

Alexei: And that’s just how I feel about making art in the world right now. The world isn’t representative of how I want it to be, so I have to always rally against it. And that’s what I want on the record.

F/F: I hear that in the music, very much so. A lot of the songs are pretty unrelenting, minimalistic, and then you’ll have this chorus or guitar riff that just cuts and rises up through that. Alexei, as a writer by trade, are there things you like better about writing songs versus writing a story?

Alexei: Um, it’s been an incredible challenge for me to write lyrics just cause it’s not at all what comes naturally to me. But I think that’s an important challenge and one I really, really like. You have to make things succinct, and you have to make them something that can be twinned with, and something that Dan can emote. Like that he can sing out and have them make sense, no matter whether the words actually do as written on a page. They frequently don’t, but because of how he pushes them out there they do.

Dan: For me, the personal sort of approach to songwriting is not one of sitting at home and inventing a fictional character or using whatever fairytale metaphors to get something across. I’m also not good at doing that other stuff. I can’t, I mean — I’d just feel like a fraud writing like, “the prince came down and the butterflies exploded from your hair and you were dreaming underwater of a fucking candy unicorn.” Grecian metaphor and literary allegory – I can’t do that. Other people can do that really well. Carey Mercer from the band Frog Eyes is kind of one of the masters of that. I love his songwriting. Spencer from Wolf Parade too, God bless him, is really good at that. And I just don’t know how to do it.

I really believe there’s this language of rock, right? Like rock and roll music has been around long enough that when people say stuff like…you take the guy from Spoon. In so many of his songs, he says stuff like “uh-huh” or “yeah,” but it’s just the way he says it, that word ceases to have the same meaning that it does on paper. And it can be interpreted depending on how he inflects it or what point in the song it comes. So, I like that minimalist lyrical school – it works for me.

F/F: Tell me more about the connection you made when you were touring in Eastern Europe with the underground radio station in Belgrade, and what that’s meant to you guys.

Alexei: When we were in Belgrade, there’s a station called B92, that is basically a guerilla radio station that was anti-Milosevic, and they were the people that basically motivated all of the demonstrations against Milosevic. They were the promoters that brought us over.

Dan: On the first visit we became really good friends just right off the bat. One of the actually traveled to Texas to come and see our show at SXSW! I consider them some of my best friends now. We’ve gotten to know a few in particular really well, like Milos and Svetlana. They’ve all had different but equally, completely and totally heartbreaking lives you know.

F/F: How old are they?

Dan: They’re in their mid-30′s. About 35.

F/F: So they’ve grown up with conflict?

Dan: Yeah. And so the first time we went over we became good friends. There was just a real connection between all of us. Then the last few times we’ve seen them it’s grown into this, I mean music, the show is the things that they are putting on and the show is what we a communicating with these kids who are coming out.

But the best part of the visits for me beyond the show is staying up all night getting completely piss fucking drunk and talking politics with them and talking about their lives and them asking us about our lives.

And that’s the whole reason I got into this thing in the first place, is just to be able make connections with people. And I never, never ever thought we’d be able to go somewhere as far away as Serbia and make connections with people there. I mean, who knows when people are going to stop giving a shit about what songs we write. But these connections, they’re permanent.

F/F: It reminds me of a book I loved about the same region called Fools Rush In – just the way that music shines through. There’s this indomitable characteristic of people that wants to play music and be in bands and go out and make love and and do all these things that embrace life. And you have to stay away from the windows so you don’t get shot, or run to the club, to avoid snipers. Meeting people that have lived through that firsthand must have just been really powerful.

Dan: Themes like that really inspired the record that we made, and then to go back — I mean the last time we were back we played for maybe seven or eight hundred kids in Belgrade and to sing those songs about the places that we’ve been to.

Alexei: I was crying after the show.

Dan: …And the shows have been really intense over there. You know like a lot of audience interaction.

Alexei: ..Yeah you got a scar from it.

Dan: It was one of the last songs we were playing in Belgrade. It was at this club called Academy, which has been around since the ’60s. And at the end I had thrown my guitar, and I grabbed the mic, and I was out in the audience. I had twisted and fallen off the stage and cut my head open on the monitors. There was a mosh pit and when I got up…

Alexei: …Suddenly the mosh pit just like moved back like, “What?!”

Dan: Yeah I was gushing blood. But our friend Milos grabbed me after the show and started stitching me up, and I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘How do you know how to do this?’ And he said, ‘I cleaned people up after the NATO bombing.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, well, this is slightly more joyful.’ And then we got drunk.


[Interview first appeared in conjunction with gigbot.com [R.I.P.], and all marvelous photos by Todd Roeth]

June 30, 2009

These United States cover this Bob Dylan :: “To Ramona”


The marvelously raw and literate These United States recently recorded a cover for a French compilation called Dylan Mania (which also features Magnet’s version of “Lay Lady Lay,” and Antony and the Johnsons knocking on heaven’s door alongside many French bands).

Where Dylan’s original of “To Ramona” waltzed and lilted in courteous measured style, These United States keel off into the hayloft as we hasten the jamboree. The thrumming and playfully creative drumbeat (courtesy of mohawked Robby) builds and drives the song along, while Jesse’s voice earnestly cracks exactly where you hope it will. There’s also some pedal steel bringin’ the lonesome, and a particularly nice clattery-taptastic breakdown towards the end.

Ramona come closer, shut softly your watery eyes
The pangs of your sadness will pass as your senses will rise
For the flowers of the city though breathlike get deathlike sometime
And there’s no use in trying to deal with the dying
Though I cannot explain that in lines.

To Ramona (Dylan cover) – These United States

One reviewer said that TUS plays their folk “the way it was meant to be played: hard, fast, big, slow, long, loud, loose, and at last unburdened. They play it like they mean it.” Personally they describe their music as cumulonimbus wordpop for the jangly railyard dreamer — I really like that.

tus-coverTheir 3rd full-length release in 18 months Everything Touches Everything (oooh!) is out September 1st; I think last year’s excellent Crimes was underrated and overlooked.

They have more live shows than anyone you’ve ever met, so go see ‘em. They put on one of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long time; we adored them at SXSW and our Hillbilly Prom they played.

For completists, here’s the original and a cover that David Gray did on his 2007 cover album A Thousand Miles Behind. And as David says at the beginning of the recording, “I absolutely loved this one from the first time I heard it…”

Oh, me too.

To Ramona – Bob Dylan
To Ramona (Dylan cover) – David Gray

I’d forever talk to you but soon my words
would turn into a meaningless ring
for deep in my heart I know there’s no help I can bring
Everything passes, everything changes
just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe, who knows baby
I’ll come and be crying to you

[photo taken in a sweaty bar at SXSW by one Todd Roeth]

June 3, 2009

Warding off demons with Thao Nguyen (Interview)

thao nguyen and the get-down stay down - todd roeth

“There is a strength and confidence that you have when playing music that to an extent I think the world tries to stomp out of you.
I think it is so tough to be a young girl growing up into a woman in this world, with all the weird pressures and the odd demands and the self-hate. Music is totally an outlet for that for these girls,
and I swear it wards off demons.”
–Thao Nguyen, general badass

Growing up as a Vietnamese-American in the largely white suburb of Falls Church, Virginia with her single mother, Thao Nguyen found a new connection and identity in music at the age of twelve when she first picked up a guitar. After teaching herself to play, she has spent the following thirteen years honing that craft — from the singer-songwriter folk duo she formed with junior high friends, to the accomplished, talented, fearless artist she is today.

Her latest album We Brave Bee Stings And All (2008) is one of my most-listened-to records of last year. Sometimes her songs hit me with playfully familiar roots of girl groups or 1950s classic pop, but then she turns up the fierce, clever rock — just as a hint, Jack White is a fan of her skillful guitar playing.

Along with her raw and earnest vocals, Thao makes music that strikes deep at the heart of truth, and isn’t afraid to mix trombone with beatboxing. Now signed to the venerable Pacific Northwest label Kill Rock Stars, Thao has released two albums with a third due this fall.

Fear and Convenience – Thao Nguyen

Thao is a smarty, and I so enjoyed our time ruminating and intellectually meandering together (two of my favorite pastimes). She studied Sociology and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary, and she is one of the most articulate and thoughtful artists I have had the pleasure of speaking with.

You can tell that this is a sharp person who has wrestled to present the very best of her thoughts and talents on her albums and in concert, and to challenge others to rise above prescribed gender roles in music and in life. Everything about her is a delight.

thao nguyen - todd roeth

May 6, 2009

I decide to start the interview with the behemoth that often comes up in her music career and in so much of what others write about her. She is a female in rock music. I am interested in what goes on in those halls as well, and I want to talk to her about it: the pigeonholing, the battle that sometimes feels uphill, the club that at first might seem unwelcoming, even if unintentionally.

I show her a comic strip that I ripped from the Feminist & Gender Studies newsletter off the bathroom wall at the college where I work:


F/F: So, this. What are your thoughts on this, as it may relate to what you are trying to do as a musician?

Thao: (laughs) I think that there is a very pervasive enveloping stigma about women as musicians, and I think that within my personal experience you are, to a degree, immediately dismissed. I know that only through experience, and that it is unfortunate but it becomes part of the deal – not only are you playing music but you are having to sort of debunk negative stereotypes and myths about women who play. For a long time, I was qualified as “a good guitar player, for being a female”…that was immediately the caveat.

F/F: Did that drive you crazy?

Thao: No, only because I have concerns about my blood pressure, so I try not to absorb it. But of course it does stick with you and float around in your mind. If nothing else, it is a motivator. I want to be good enough that it doesn’t matter what gender I am. That may be the ultimate goal, that we eliminate even the passing thought of it. It’s disturbing how much it plays a factor – but then on the other hand I think it should be totally acknowledged and commended when any woman gains a foothold in any male-dominated industry such as this, that she’s done it as a woman, with no apologies.

It’s a weird line to toe and strange territory to navigate – being proud of being a woman, yet being willing to disregard that fact. And all the while just trying to maintain respect for yourself, and command respect at the same time.

F/F: Amen. I hear that you are volunteering this summer for Rock Camp For Girls?

Thao: That is correct! I am so thrilled, it is in Portland this June. I have dreamt of it for so long, since I found out that it existed, but I have been on tour every summer since I found out about it. My friend Laura Veirs mentioned it once a while back when I was on tour with her. This is the first summer that I have been able to make a window so that I can participate. I’m totally excited – I mean this sincerely, I really need a reminder sometimes to keep going and keep playing music and being involved in the industry, pushing along. I was filling out the application, I remember, and it asked me why I wanted to participate, and I think I started to tear up. It’s that significant to me.

I want girls growing up to have this experience, and I think back to when I was young and I would have been ruined without music. I don’t exaggerate, I think it saved me in a lot of ways. I just want little girls to know that it’s possible, you know? Just help them along. I am going to be a band coach and I am going to teach guitar – they haven’t told me what age yet, but I hope younger so they’re not better than me, because that would be embarrassing. But I just want the opportunity to show that it is possible, just to give them a vague idea of where they want to get to, and the rest is up to you. Just to tell them not to be intimidated.

There is a strength and confidence that you have when playing music that to an extent I think the world tries to stomp out of you. I think it is so tough to be a young girl growing up into a woman in this world, with all the weird pressures and the odd demands and the self-hate. Music is totally an outlet for that for these girls, and I swear it wards off demons.


F/F: For some artists there seems to be a difference between simple performance and true catharsis – really feeling a song. It seems no matter where you perform, from small radio station to big loud club, you always give authentic catharsis, with a lot of yourself.

Thao: I think it’s just the easiest thing for me to do, because however many times you do it, if you don’t hearken back to why you wrote it and how you felt when you did, why you needed to expel it from your body, then it becomes insincere. It is easier for me to just check out and immerse myself in the song, sink into something else, rather than be cognizant of how awkward the show could be. If I don’t do that, I just feel totally stupid — you gotta go all the way or it feels worse. I do sink my teeth into it because they are really personal songs, and if you don’t give that of yourself when you present them to people, then you do the song another injustice. I enjoy it — it is very draining, but I would rather that than be detached from the performance. Also, as people pay to see us, part of my job is to put on a good show. It’s really important for us to build a connection with the audience, and I want to build as honest of an experience as possible.

But [laughs] now that I think about it, you know, that’s kind of fucked up! But part of my job is to wallow in these terrible aspects and experiences. It’s not great for morale. After a while, I don’t want to think about them anymore, but for my job I have to.

F/F: Tell me about your work with the Portland Cello Project, which sounds amazing. You recorded an album recently with cello interpretations of your songs?

Thao: Yeah, well, I am performing with them on the record, so in a way they become my backing band. Willis [the drummer] plays on a few of the songs, and there’s my guitar, with the rest all cello. The songs we contributed were “Beat (Health, Life and Fire),” “Violet,” “Tallymarks,” and “Geography” with them, and the Kill Rockstars label is releasing it in June. It’s a full-length album — The Cello Project has a few songs they’ve contributed just of their own, and then another artist named Justin Power has a few of his songs on there as well. The Portland Cello Project has also recorded with artists like Horse Feathers, Laura Gibson and Mirah.

F/F: That sounds brilliant. Cellos are such honest, sad, gorgeous instruments, and I’m curious to hear what they bring out of your songs.

Thao: Yeah, they definitely bring out the sadness in my music, I’ll tell you that.

F/F: Your record We Brave Bee Stings and All (on the formidable Kill Rock Stars label), is one of my favorites of the last year. I understand that you guys are putting the final touches on the new album?

Thao: That is correct, we have one more week of working on it in July, and then it will be released in October. It is tentatively titled Know Better Learn Faster, but I am not completely sure on that yet. I’ll decide when they make me. The record is primarily a response to the end of a relationship, so a lot of it is pretty reactionary. It’s trying to be introspective, but there’s always got to be a little “fuck you” in there – or, sometimes there’s a lot. I am excited about the emotional content of it and how we tried to convey our live performance and that level of energy that we have now. On We Brave, we didn’t have that, because when we recorded it we weren’t really a band yet.

F/F: I heard one new song performed in Austin, and I read that you’ve been interested in exploring new sounds and instruments and songwriting techniques. What are you most excited about with the new album?

Thao: Lyrically I think the new album is a lot more straightforward than We Brave, because on that album I just danced around a lot of things, it wasn’t a total confrontation. But this new record was very intense and emotional to write and it all came out very quickly, in a month or so. I think the album is a lot more intense and energetic and straightforward.

We’ve been playing three of the new songs on the road, “Goodbye Good Luck,” “Body,” and “Easy,” and the album has 12 or 13 songs on it total. On this record, we’ve got a female choir, a lot more organ, more horns, a lot of trumpet, slide guitar.

There’s one song that’s only handclaps and stomping, it’s a very short song, and we’re calling it “The Clap.” That’s the title – and I’m not changing it.

thao nguyen backstage - todd roeth

[this interview was originally done in conjunction with gigbot.com [R.I.P.], with great photos taken by Todd Roeth]

April 10, 2009

Gregory Alan Isakov & Brandi Carlile: “That Moon Song”


Gregory Alan Isakov is a South African-born, Philly-raised musician whose music is all tones of sepia and creeping warmth. He’s recommended for folks who appreciate warmly intelligent, rich songwriting like Jeffrey Foucault or Josh Ritter. Now living in Colorado, we are proud to call him an adopted native son.  I love  the sly sincerity in his voice, like he knows a secret that’s making him smile.

Today I absolutely cannot stop listening to this new song from his forthcoming album This Empty Northern Hemisphere (due May 19). Not only does it blend all the scratchy, old time feelings that I love from him, but he is joined by friend Brandi Carlile on backing vocals! Together, they are perfect.  I never do get tired of her strong, clear voice.

That Moon Song (w/ Brandi Carlile) – Gregory Alan Isakov

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that full-bellied moon, just a-shining on me
and she pulls on this heart like she pulls on the sea


Last time I saw Gregory, he was wowing the sold-out Calexico crowd; I look forward to his record release party on May 15th. He is currently on tour with Ms. Carlile (*starred dates) and in them Netherlands.

Apr 10 Alltel Center – Mankato, MN*
Apr 11 Hoyt Sherman Theatre – Des Moines, IA*
Apr 14 Wheeler Opera House - Aspen, CO*
Apr 16 Meadowlark: Netherlands’ Tour Sendoff - Denver, CO
Apr 17 Platte Canyon High School - Bailey, CO
Apr 18 Everyday Joe’s  - Fort Collins, CO

Apr 24 De Bosuil - Weert, Limburg
Apr 25 Muziekpodium Bakkeveen - Bakkeveen, Friesland
Apr 26 House Concert - Bakkeveen, Friesland
Apr 27 Crossroads Radio - Bergen op Zoom
Apr 28 Q-Bus - Leiden, Zuid-Holland
Apr 29 Korsakoff - Amsterdam
May 2 Shouting Boots Radio Show (Afternoon) - Hilversum
May 2 In The Woods – Lage Vuursche
May 3 Huis Verloren - Hoorn, Noord-Holland

May 15 Fox Theatre: CD Release w/ Bela Karoli & The Widow’s Bane – Boulder, Colorado
May 19 The Belcourt Theatre – Nashville*
May 20 Eddie’s Attic – Decatur, Georgia*
May 22 WorkPlay Theatre – Birmingham, Alabama*
May 23 Blue Gills – Spanish Fort, Alabama*
May 24 House Of Blues -  New Orleans, Louisiana*
May 27 House Of Blues – Houston, Texas*
May 28 Gruene Hall – San Antonio, Texas*
May 29 Granada Theater – Dallas, Texas*
May 30 Texas Union Th. @ Univ. Of Texas – Austin, Texas*

* with Brandi Carlile

RELATED POST:I belong to the salt and the sea and the stars, save them all for me.”
[song news via my friend Bodie’s blog, The Mountain Tempo. Photo by Todd Roeth, again. I should hire him as my intern]

April 7, 2009

Interview: The expansive sounds of Blitzen Trapper


Through non-stop touring over the last two years and a pair of very strong albums (their latest, Furr, on Sub Pop), Portland’s Blitzen Trapper is accumulating a critical amount of deserved buzz behind their music. Straddling genres of expansively golden CSNY rock, the wide-open folk underpinnings of the wilderness, and the squalling rock of fellow Portlanders Pavement, their music delights simply in its unpredictability.

I sat down with half of the band when they were in Denver a few weeks ago, playing a very sold-out show at the Hi-Dive. Brian Adrian Koch (drums and vocals), Eric Earley (lead vocals and guitar) and Marty Marquis (guitar, keyboard and vocals) piled on a sunken green couch and we chatted about their year, while waiting for Ramen from the bar.

Fuel/Friends: Last time you guys were here in Denver I saw you open for Malkmus, which must have been pretty cool. Your non-stop touring seems to have generated a good deal of enthusiasm in the crowd refracted back to the stage – the singing along with each word on songs like “Furr”….

Eric: Yeah, that’s been great and surprising. People also really seem into “Black River Killer” on this tour…

Marty: Oh, and also “Not Your Lover”, when the three of us do it all singing together

Not Your Lover (live 2/27/09) – Blitzen Trapper

F/F: I’d read about a thematic connection between Black River Killer and (author) Cormac McCarthy. What about his novels inspire you creatively?

Eric: On the one hand, that song is a classic murder ballad, but in other ways it’s more ambiguous as well, with some spiritual aspects. To me the imagery of the song feels related to the world McCarthy creates.

Marty: And I think there’s also the same recurring theme of regeneration through violence and some sort of redemptive quality in the most mindless, pathetic slaughter. It’s an interesting character in that story of our song and I think people are drawn to those contradictions. I mean it’s an American myth, that’s one of the things that makes us tick as a culture. I think Cormac McCarthy also taps into some of that.

Black River Killer (live in NYC) – Blitzen Trapper

Eric: He’s like our classic, our Hemingway or Faulkner, our Steinbeck crossed with Joyce. And he does it with an amount of experience that’s strange, and he’s writing right now. It’s amazing.

Brian: As rife as those novels are, when they’re translated into film – I watched No Country For Old Men, and there’s no music in it at all, and I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me afterwards and I had to go back and check. There’s not a stitch. It’s so effective, I was flabbergasted.

F/F: It’s consistent with his books I think, though, since there’s such a space and a stillness and a silence in them.

Eric: Yeah, completely.

F/F: How do you possibly maintain creativity while you’re on the road? How have you been able to work on finishing your next album being on tour so much?

Eric: Well, I don’t write on the road, I write when I get home. And I can write really fast, I can write a whole record in a month. January I spent the whole time recording and writing.

Marty: You can barely think on the road.

Brian: The road’s a really good place to form ideas, for things to bubble and boil in your head. But as far as developing them into actual songs, it’s not very realistic. A lot of time to think though.

F/F: I also read that you have a record made between each of your records? Do you ever revisit those songs or play them live?

Eric: Well, we’ve used em for a few things… the Tour EP that we’ve had the last couple tours is stuff that was outtakes from Furr, and then all the Wild Mountain Nation outtakes were released here and there, on blogs and stuff like that. There’s probably an album and a half of stuff that hasn’t been put out.

The next record is definitely going to have some older songs that have been recorded years ago, some that were written when I was like nineteen, mixed in among all the new stuff. Generally when I’m making a record I record 25-30 songs, so yeah there’s a whole lot of stuff out there.

F/F: Do you ever play those unreleased rough cuts live?

Marty: Well you know, we want to make everyone have a good time, and it helps when they know the music. But we do play some stuff that’s pretty obscure in our set. As far as your average person who knows about Blitzen Trapper, they mostly want to hear the album Furr and even some of the hits from the last record, but we will also play stuff that they are totally unaware of.

Furr (live in NYC) – Blitzen Trapper

F/F: I wanted to hear more about your record label….Lidkercow?

Eric: Yeah, Lidkercow – that’s a Joyce reference.

F/F: ….Are you planning to release your own solo projects on that label, or signing some other bands you admire?

Eric: We are always feeling like we hear bands whose records we’d like to release….

Brian: In our fantasy life, we’ve always looked down the road to a place where people can collaborate and create together, and thinking of ways that we can be a part of that.

Marty: I mean, we’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years, we were a band for a long time and we didn’t know how to get the word out. We were just pretty naïve and playing music around Portland for a long time. So when we finally pushed out, we were really innocent, and it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for us. Now we’re getting to a place where I feel like we could help other artists ascend that curve and it would be pretty cool. There’s definitely some bands and musicians I’ve talked to a little bit that we’re pretty impressed with, but yeah, you don’t want to shortchange people either. What we do is a pretty spartan, bare-bones approach.

F/F: Well, and it is a crowded music market out there.

Eric: It’s difficult to navigate it.

Marty: I think people are getting pretty savvy about navigating all the data that’s out there, though. With music these days you can go and hear something immediately, and that communicates on some super-rational level with your core being and you don’t have to rely on what other people are saying about the music.

F/F: Do you think that people seem to have less patience to some degree for bands that don’t fit into a mold or genre? Like for example, people seem to have no idea how to classify your music – it’s quite amusing reading all the descriptors assigned to you guys.

Eric: Yeah, but all of that stuff is writers though. What I’ve learned on this record the last two tours is that there’s a big difference between writers and the fans. You know, and the fans just hear the music and they connect with it, whether it’s classified a certain way or not, it’s unimportant. But you need the writers to communicate to people about the music too.

Marty: I mean, it’s human nature to want to classify stuff. I definitely think that, yeah, if we had been a more focused band maybe, and we’d just said, we’re gonna be a straight country folk act and we’re all going to wear cowboy hats in our photo shoots….we might have been able to penetrate the marketplace a lot earlier because it’s a sharper instrument that people can comprehend a lot easier.

Eric: But you know, I think the way that we’re going though will have more lasting value, as opposed to being sort of like, “Well, you got your year.” I’d rather be able to make 5 or 6 records that will all last, or at least all contain songs that can stand the test of time.


All photos by special arrangement, from a little fly-by-night session we did shortly before the interview with the amazing Todd Roeth.

[thanks to the awesome NYCTaper for the live tracks throughout]

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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